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Capitals vs. Lightning: PHT’s 2018 Eastern Conference Final preview

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How much of an underdog can you be when you won your division, and done so by a significant margin?

In the case of the Washington Capitals, it seems like you could be a genuine underdog. Really, they sure felt like one against the Pittsburgh Penguins, too, despite being a higher seed with home-ice advantage.

It was probably a refreshing change of pace for the Capitals to be less of a juggernaut, and that will certainly carry over against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

By going 54-23-5 with 113 standings points, the Lightning finished with the best record in the East, generating eight more than the Capitals. After missing the playoffs thanks to a bumpy, injury-ravaged 2016-17 season, the Lightning justified all of the optimism surrounding this roster … and more.

Neither the Capitals (two six-game series) nor the Lightning (two five-game series) have faced elimination so far during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. To advance to the championship round, it’s quite likely that they’ll face their greatest tests yet.

SCHEDULE

OFFENSE

Capitals: Washington has scored 43 goals so far in 12 postseason games, a slightly higher per-game rate (3.58) than Tampa Bay (3.50). They’re generating a healthy 32.8 shots on goal per contest. Via Natural Stat Trick, Washington’s generated a robust 110 high-danger chances at even-strength so far during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Through 12 games, the Capitals’ highest-scoring forwards are three players you’d expect: Alex Ovechkin (eight goals, 15 points), Evgeny Kuznetsov (14 points, seven goals including the OT tally that ended Pittsburgh’s season), and Nicklas Backstrom (10 assists, 13 points despite missing Game 6 against the Penguins).

Washington’s forward balance should return to its impressive form now that Tom Wilson‘s suspension is over and especially if Backstrom is healthy.

Lightning: Thus far, the Lightning are the scary mix of high-end offense (Nikita Kucherov leads them with 12 points after a 100-point regular season) and dangerous depth (three players with at least a point-per-game). They’re right up there with the Capitals and Golden Knights as teams averaging at least 3.5 goals each contest. They’ve scored 35 goals in 10 games.

They’ve generated 73 high-danger chances versus just 52 allowed.

ADVANTAGE: Lightning. During the season, Tampa Bay scored 290 goals while Washington generated 256. The Bolts are a more versatile scoring machine than the Capitals, especially with the Caps dealing with a little more attrition.

If the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs are any indication, this battle is closer than those regular season numbers would make you think.

[Capitals vs. Lightning: Three questions facing each team]

DEFENSE

Capitals: The Caps have allowed 32 goals and given up 30.2 shots per contest during the playoffs, so they’ve been winning those battles. They’ve given up as many high-danger chances (110) as they’ve generated.

John Carlson rounds out the Capitals’ group of four players who are in the double-digits in points with 11, and he’s unlikely to relent as he tries to beef up an already impressive contract year. Carlson’s also a workhorse for Washington (26:44 TOI average) along with Matt Niskanen (26:52) and Dmitry Orlov (25:31). While Orlov and Niskanen aren’t lighting up the scoreboard like Carlson, they’ve been key pieces, with Orlov and Niskanen carrying a difficult workload against Sidney Crosby. It will be fascinating to see whether Barry Trotz prefers sending out Niskanen and Orlov against the Stamkos or Point lines.

Lightning: Tampa Bay’s allowed just 25 goals in 10 games, 10 fewer than they’ve generated so far during the postseason. Makes sense since they’ve won eight of 10 games, yet it’s another reminder that the Lightning have been a buzzsaw. Again, they’ve limited dangerous chances as well as any team in the postseason.

There is quite a bit of talent on this blueline. Victor Hedman is the obvious headliner as a playoff-proven, Norris-quality performer. The Lightning eventually managed to slow down the Bruins’ terrifying top line, and a lot of that credit goes to Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman. Mikhail Sergachev continues to be a scoring threat on defense even as they ease him into the mix.

ADVANTAGE: Lightning. Despite scoring 34 more goals than Washington in 2017-18, the Lightning allowed four fewer (234 to the Caps’ 238). They’re generally able to create a ton of high-danger chances while keeping such dangerous threats moderate-to-low. If you could only pick one defenseman in this series, just about anyone would choose Victor Hedman. Tampa Bay has lock-down options and depth at the position, with McDonagh looking quite good lately.

The Capitals have absorbed some painful losses on offense and defense, but they play in a strong defensive system with Trotz. They’re unlikely to give up many easy chances when Matt Niskanen is on the ice. Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson can create offense, and some depth options like Michal Kempny have really improved their balance. Washington’s defense is pretty solid; Tampa Bay’s is just better.

GOALTENDING

Capitals: After regaining the Capitals top job after Philipp Grubauer‘s early postseason struggles, Braden Holtby is looking a lot like the guy who was putting up some of the best goalie numbers over the past few years, with the added bonus of overcoming the Penguins this time around.

 So far during this postseason run, Holtby generated an 8-3-0 record and .926 save percentage. It’s funny yet very “hockey” that his most rewarding playoff run comes after his first rocky regular season in some time (34-16-4 but with a mediocre .907 save percentage).

One nice thing Washington enjoys that few teams can match is employing a quality backup. While Grubauer struggled in his audition as the top guy, his excellent regular season shouldn’t be disregarded. If something happens to Holtby, the Caps have a nice Plan B.

Lightning: Fatigue and a bumpy finish to the regular season took much of the air out of Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s Vezina campaign, but it makes sense that he managed to be a finalist.

After going 44-17-3 with a .920 save percentage and eight shutouts, Vasilevskiy’s been steady in the playoffs, raising his save percentage to .927. He’s been a strong playoff performer overall when he’s managed to get the chances, as his career mark is a lofty .923 in 22 games.

Tampa Bay’s backups are unproven at best, and a real problem at worst, so it’s probably Vasi-or-bust.

ADVANTAGE: Lightning. This is extremely close. Let’s not forget, however, that Holtby was sputtering and losing his top job just a month ago. With their postseason numbers so close, Vasilevskiy’s superior regular season gives him the slight edge.

This category’s another tough call, though, for two reasons: 1) Holtby is really good and is an experienced, proficient playoff goalie and 2) Grubauer gives Washington a much better backup option if something happens.

In other words, this situation could change if Vasilevskiy stumbles or someone stumbles into him and he ends up with an injury.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Capitals: The Capitals’ 13 power-play goals leads the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and their impressive 30.9 percent success rate ranks second (and first among teams that are still in the mix). Washington’s man advantage has been stout for ages now, and Alex Ovechkin continues to be one of the NHL’s singular special teams threats from “his office.”

Washington’s PK killed just under 80 percent of its opponents chances (79.1 percent), slightly lower than the Caps’ regular season success rate of 80.3 (which was middle-of-the-pack). They’ve allowed nine power-play goals during this postseason, with five of them coming during Games 3-5 of the Penguins series.

Overall, special teams seem to be a healthy net-positive for Washington.

Lightning: Tampa Bay has as many power-play goals (10) as playoff games played so far. They’ve generated a PPG on 26.3 percent of their chances; about the only downside of this unit is that it allowed two shorthanded goals. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov’s cross-ice passes simply must be stopped, as their work is right up there with the threat of Ovechkin’s wheelhouse. The Bolts’ PP was deadly during the regular season, too.

Tampa Bay gave up eight power-play goals without generating any shorthanded tallies through 10 postseason contests, killing 74.2 percent of their penalties taken.

Generally speaking, the Lightning’s PK has been a rare area of relative weakness, as they struggled during the regular season, too.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals. These two teams feature power plays that can both take over a series. Washington’s enjoyed better all-around work this postseason, with a PK that seems more reliable.

As with every category, it’s close.

X-FACTORS

Capitals: The Capitals were able to eliminate the Penguins in Game 6 despite Nicklas Backstrom’s absence, but if their criminally underrated center isn’t good to go during this series, there could be problems. The Lightning boast Stamkos and Point, so having two quality centers would really help. At this point, Backstrom’s health is a real question. That could be a make-or-break factor in Washington’s chance to hang in this series.

Lightning: Andrei Vasilevskiy’s looked like he’s back in form after acknowledging fatigue during the regular season, a lot like his goalie counterpart Braden Holtby. That said, the Lightning haven’t exactly faced adversity during this run, dispatching both opponents in just five games. If Washington starts to get to Vasilevskiy, will his confidence fade?

PREDICTION

Lightning in six games. Tampa Bay has been tearing through its opponents, including an impressive (if banged-up) Bruins team. Washington possesses balance that the Bruins and Devils arguably lacked are built to give the Bolts some headaches. The Lightning have at least a little, often a lot, of everything you’d hope for in a contender; they’re likely to end the Capitals’ post-Penguins honeymoon with cruel precision.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins vs. Blue Jackets: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff preview

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For the first time in franchise history the Columbus Blue Jackets will get to see what life is like in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After pulling off a stunning upset in Round 1, where they not only beat the NHL’s best team, but completely dominated them, the Blue Jackets get to see if they can shock the world once again when they take on the Boston Bruins.

The big thing to watch early in this series will be whether or not the lengthy, week-long layoff for the Blue Jackets will be something that helps or hurts them against a Bruins team that is coming off of a grueling seven-game series against the Toronto Maple Leafs where they had to win back-to-back games to fight off elimination.

From a big picture outlook the Bruins are the superior team on paper and based on their overall regular season performance, but the same thing was said about the Lightning in the previous round, and we all saw how that turned out.

Going back to March 24 the Blue Jackets are 11-1-0 in their past 12 games, with that only loss coming at the hands of the Bruins, a 6-2 defeat on April 2.

The two teams met three times during the regular season with each team winning once in a blowout, and the Bruins taking the extra game in a 2-1 overtime decision on March 16.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Schedule

Surging Players

Boston: It should be no surprise that the three-headed monster of of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak is leading the way offensively for the Bruins. They have been doing it for years, and they did it again in Round 1 against the Maple Leafs. What is really helping is they are getting a lot of contributions from players outside of that group. Charlie Coyle, one of the Bruins’ trade deadline acquisitions, scored three goals in Round 1, Brandon Carlo didn’t record a point but was outstanding at times defensively, and their Game 7 offense came from a lot of their unsung depth players. The Bruins are a team with superstars at the top of the lineup (all playing exceptionally well) and has found some depth to go with the. That is a dangerous combination.

Columbus: Instead of dealing away their pending free agents, the Blue Jackets went all in at the trade deadline with Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid, and it not only helped produce the first postseason series win in franchise history, it helped them pull off one of the biggest Round 1 upsets ever. Duchene was one of the driving forces behind that four-game sweep of the Lightning, recording seven points in the four games. Artemi Panarin was also an impact player throughout the opening round, while young players Pierre-Luc Dubois and Oliver Bjorkstrand started to make a name for themselves.

Struggling Players

Boston: Marcus Johansson had what could probably described as an “up-and-down” series for the Bruins. He scored a huge goal in Game 7, but it was his only point in the five games he played while he also finished as a team-worst minus-4 in the series. Jake DeBrusk also had a quiet round, but that was mostly due to poor shooting luck (only one goal on 20 shots) than anything that he was or was not doing.

Columbus: When you sweep the best team in the NHL in four games there probably are not many players on your roster that are struggling, and even if there are, you haven’t had enough time to figure out who they are. Still, the Blue Jackets would probably like to see a little bit more from Dzingel and Brandon Dubinsky in Round 2, as both were held off the scoresheet entirely in their first four games.

Goaltending

Boston: Bruins fans always seem to be waiting for an opportunity to criticize Tuukka Rask and make him the scapegoat for whenever the team falls short in the playoffs. While his regular season performance wasn’t consistently great, and there is reason to believe he is not the same goalie he was four or five years ago, he is still a very capable starter that has the potential to steal a game or two, and perhaps even an entire series should it come to that. He was outstanding in the first round with a .928 save percentage and was at his best in Games 6 and 7 when the Bruins needed him most.

Columbus: This was always going to be the big question for the Blue Jackets. For as good as Sergei Bobrovsky has been throughout his career he has been one of the least productive goalies in the NHL come playoff time, consistently melting down at the worst possible time. He did a lot of work in Round 1 to quiet the doubters in helping to shut down one of the greatest offenses the NHL has ever seen. The Blue Jackets dominated the series so much that they didn’t even need Bobrovsky to be great, and he still finished with a .932 save percentage in what has been — by far — the best postseason performance of his career.

Special Teams

Boston: The Bruins’ power play can be a game-changer for them. It was among the best in the NHL during the regular season, and then absolutely dominated the Maple Leafs in Round 1 by scoring seven power play goals in the seven games (and they didn’t even get a power play in Game 7). And it wasn’t just any one player during the damage. They received power play goals from six different players in the first round (only Bergeron scored more than one) while eight different players recorded at least one point on the power play. The only flaw the unit has — and it is a big flaw — is that it is sometimes vulnerable to shorthanded goals against, giving up 15 during the regular season and another one in Round 1. The Bruins’ PK unit, on the other hand, is a tough group to figure out. With Bergeron, Marchand, and the defense they have behind them it should be a good group, at least based on the talent they have at their disposal. But they were only middle of the pack during the regular season and were just “okay” against the Maple Leafs, though they did kill have six in a row to end the series, including all five in Games 6 and 7 when facing elimination.

Columbus: It’s not always about how many goals you score, but when you score them. That was the case for the Blue Jackets’ power play that was one of the worst in the NHL during the regular season, but went off in Round 1 by scoring on five of its 10 attempts against the Lightning. Nobody should reasonably expect them to continue clicking at 50 percent into Round 2, but if they can find a couple of goals on the man-advantage and continue their excellent penalty kill that could be a huge difference in the series — especially if they can keep staying out of the box. Columbus was tied for best PK unit in the league during the regular season and then followed that up by taking just six minor penalties in the four games against Tampa Bay. Their PK will probably get more use in Round 2, and they are going to be challenged by a Bruins power play that is not only good, but is white-hot right now.

X-Factor for Bruins

After scoring 27 goals in only 68 games during the regular season Jake DeBrusk had a mostly quiet series against the Maple Leafs, but he still showed some signs (like the fact he had 20 shots on goal) that he could be on the verge of breaking out in a big way at some point very, very soon. If he does that would give the Bruins just one more weapon that Columbus has to contend with and try to slow down. In his first two years in the league he has already shown that he can be a legit top-six forward and could be a huge X-factor in Round 2 for the Bruins.

X-Factor for Blue Jackets 

Alexandre Texier was a late addition to the Blue Jackets’ roster, and the 19-year-old has already made a sizable impact. He has only played in six NHL games (two at the end of the regular season, all four playoff games to this point) and has already scored three goals and an assist. That includes his two goals in the Blue Jackets’ series-clinching win over the Lightning where he opened the scoring with an early power play goal.

Prediction

Bruins in 6. The Blue Jackets are not going to be an easy out, and even though they entered the playoffs as the No. 8 seed the roster they have now is very different from the one they had for most of the regular season. And all of the new additions seem to have found their place in the lineup. They are legit. But so are the Bruins, and they not only have a trio of stars at the top of their lineup that are probably superior to Columbus’ top players, but they have also found some depth to complement them.

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Stars vs. Blues
• Avalanche vs. Sharks
• Islanders vs. Capitals
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Stars vs. Blues: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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If you’re looking for a high-scoring second-round series, it might be best to find another game to watch.

That isn’t to say the hockey will be bad, but this has gigantic defensive battle written all over it in what should look a lot like a good game of chess rather than checkers.

And as good defensively both teams are, neither goalie will be giving up an inch either.

The Dallas Stars vs. the St. Louis Blues will be a battle of the upsetters after both teams ousted teams seeded higher than them in Round 1.

The Stars come into the series having handled the Nashville Predators with relative ease in six games. Dallas’ tight style of game stymied the Predators. And even though Nashville had the lion’s share of possession, they were faced with trying to solve Ben Bishop, which they couldn’t.

St. Louis, meanwhile, rode a wave of momentum that began in January into their series with the Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg struggled down the stretch and the Blues took advantage, including winning all three games they played on the road. The Blues just kept coming. Deficits were no big deal as the Blues showed tremendous resiliency in sticking within their structure.

The series will also act as a rematch. Both teams collided in Round 2 in 2016, with the Blues edging the Stars in seven games. There’s a good chance we experience some deja vu, at least in that seven-game region.

Dallas went 3-1-0 against the Blues during the regular season.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Schedule

Surging Players

Stars: You look at the stats sheet and see all the regulars there for the Stars. Names like Alex Radulov, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin all perform well in the playoffs and this year is no exception. For Dallas, depth scoring is key. Outside of that top line, they need players who can step up and find the back of the net to alleviate some of the pressure that is placed upon that line merely because it’s so bloody dominant. Roope Hintz has taken a big step in these playoffs, both in terms of contributions (two goals, one assist) and the trust of coach Jim Montgomery, who played him nearly 20 minutes in the deciding Game 6. Hintz looks dangerous with the puck on his stick and is providing the Stars with a solid second-line center that has complemented Mats Zuccarello well.

Blues: Jaden Schwartz could have had a more memorable Game 6 to knock out the Jets. He scored a hat trick in the game, which was a follow-up performance after he scored the game-winning goal to cap off a third-period comeback in Game 5 with just 15 seconds remaining in the third period. After going the first four games of that series with a single assist, Schwartz has burst onto the scene and will be riding a wave of confidence heading into this series. St. Louis’ top line is going to had a tough task with their counterparts on the Stars. A continuation from the latter half of Round 1 would go a long way for Schwartz and the Blues.

Struggling players

Stars: Paging that fourth line. Tyler Pitlick, Jason Spezza and Justin Dowling (or whoever is placed there) would most certainly be welcomed if they wanted to add some offense to this series. The trio above was together for the final three games, for the most part, and were run over possession-wise, and contributing nothing offensively. It’s the fourth line, I get it. but in a series where scoring will be at a premium, they could use a little from some unexpected places.

Blues: Dare I say Vladimir Tarasenko? He scored two goals in the series vs. Winnipeg, with both markers coming on the power play. The Jets did a great job of neutralizing Tarasenko’s game-breaking ability in the first round and there wasn’t much the latter could do about it. Tarasenko finished the year with 33 goals and 68 points. We all know he has it in him. Tarasenko produced a team-high 23 shots in the series, so perhaps a few more well-placed ones could see a different result.

Goaltending

Stars: Bishop is a Vezina candidate this season and very deserving of the nomination. He paced the NHL with a .934 save percentage in the regular season and hasn’t skipped a beat — and really, has only gotten better — in the playoffs with a .945 mark in six games against the Nashville Predators, allowing just 12 goals in the series. Only Robin Lehner has been better statistically speaking.

The Stars’ backbone, Bishop will be relied upon once again. The thing he gives his team is confidence, especially if Dallas engages in a track meet at times.

Blues: Binnington has been the story of the season in the crease, and perhaps the entire NHL, given what he’s done to help turn around the St. Louis Blues.

Many (including myself) thought Binnington, although seemingly very good, was going to suffer from inexperience and a stout offense against the Winnipeg Jets. And it appeared after Game 3, that was going to be the case. But Binnington recovered, posting a .949 and a .935 in Games 4 and 5, respectively to put the Blues ahead. Binnginton is going to be called upon again to shut down a high-powered offense. He can do it, he’s proven. But can he keep it up?

What was interesting about Binnington in Round 1 was how tough getting that first goal by him was. That can be a soul-sucking endeavor. But if you can get to him, he’s shown some cracks.

Special Teams

Stars: You can’t do much better than going a perfect 15-for-15 on the penalty kill against the Central Division’s best team in the regular season. It would be something special for them to replicate that against the Blues, who were five-for-19 against the Jets. The power play for Dallas was less than ideal, scoring just four times on 22 attempts (and were just one-for-18 if you take away a three PP-goal first period in Game 4). The Stars could take a big edge here if they’re able to find the back of the net more when up a man.

Blues: This is potentially where the series could be won for St. Louis. Breaching the walls on the power play will be a good start, and then repeating a bit of what Nashville was able to do to keep the Stars power play at bay will be critical. The Stars top line was simply too good five-on-five to allow them to continue that on the man-advantage, where all three of them line up on the first power-play unit. Binnington has seen a stout power play from Winnipeg, so he knows what’s coming. He was their best penalty killer and will be tasked in that role once more.

X-Factor For Stars

Their top line. Radulov, Benn and Seguin came as advertised in Round 1, combining for seven goals and 18 points as Nashville struggled to deal with their pace. They’ll be called upon once again to produce at a similar rate. If Dallas has a flaw (and they do) it’s that scoring depth drops off a cliff outside of that line. Zuccarello has helped, and contributions have come from other spots in a timely manner, but if Dallas’ top line went cold, what would happen? Simply, they can’t afford that, even with how good Bishop has been.

X-Factor For Blues

Binnington. Take away a six-goal burst from the Jets in Game 3 and Binnington would be sitting pretty with a save percentage in the .930 range. What the Jets did well in that game was build off of each goal. It took just four minutes in the second period for the Jets to amass three goals as Binnington didn’t adjust well to Winnipeg’s pressure. This, of course, was just one game in a series where Binnington was otherwise very, very good. Like I said, take away this blip on the radar screen and you get a Binnington that looked calm and collected against a high-powered offense. Dallas doesn’t have the scoring depth of Winnipeg, either. Binnington stole the will from the Jets on multiple occasions and there’s no reason to think he can’t do so again vs. the Stars.

Prediction

Stars in 7. Dallas has grown on me since the start of the playoffs. They were meshing down the stretch and seemed to benefit from the meaningful games they had to play to secure their first wild-card spot. But it’s that goaltending that has me hooked. Bishop has looked infallible. Unless that changes, I think Dallas can once again withstand getting out-possessed again.

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kane, Kucherov, McDavid are the 2019 Ted Lindsay Award finalists

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The National Hockey League Players’ Association has announced its finalists for the 2019 Ted Lindsay Award, which is given “to the most outstanding player in the NHL,” as voted by fellow members of the NHLPA.

The 2019 nominees are Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers. McDavid has won the award the last two years.

Formerly known as the Lester B. Pearson Award, the TLA will be presented less than four months after the passing of its namesake and NHLPA pioneer, Ted Lindsay.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Case For Patrick Kane: He led the Blackhawks in goals (44), assists (66) and points (110), and tied Kucherov for the second-most even-strength points (80) in the NHL. This past season was the second time Kane has topped each of the 40-goal, 60-assist and 100-point marks. The last time he did that was the 2015-16, which saw him win the Lindsay that year, making him the only player in franchise history to receive the award.

The Case For Nikita Kucherov: Kucherov helped the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning tie a league-best record of 62 wins, while capturing his first Art Ross Trophy. He scored a career-high 128 points to set a new single-season scoring record for the most by a Russian-born player, topping Alexander Mogilny’s 127 points from 1992-93. His 87 assists also led the NHL and tied the single-season record for the most by a winger (Jaromir Jagr, 1995-96). Kucherov could become the first Lightning player to receive the award since Martin St. Louis (2003-04).

The Case For Connor McDavid: McDavid led the Oilers (116 points), setting a career high in the process. He tied his goal total (41) from 2017-18 to finish sixth in the NHL. His 75 assists ranked second in the league and set a new career-high. If he wins the award, McDavid will become the first three-time recipient before the age of 23, and the first player to be deemed most outstanding by his peers in three consecutive seasons since Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin (2007-08, 2008-09, 2009-10).

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS:
• Selke Trophy
Lady Bing Trophy
Masteron Trophy
Norris Trophy

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Wraparound: Bishop the ‘backbone’ faces off vs. boyhood team

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

Ben Bishop remembers it well.

It was 2001, second-round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The then-14-year-old Bishop was in the stands at Savvis Center in St. Louis cheering on his beloved St. Louis Blues as they swept the Dallas Stars. The series victory put the Blues into the Western Conference Final for the first time in 15 years, and the young netminder recalled heckling Ed Belfour a few times.

“I remember going to playoff games and screaming ‘Belllll-four.’ He had one the best names for that chant,” Bishop said. “I remember the last 10 minutes, so it’s pretty ironic that I’m going back as that goalie.”

When the Blues-Stars series begins Thursday night (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream) at Enterprise Center, Bishop, who was drafted by St. Louis in 2005, will surely be on the other end of a similar chant from the St. Louis crowd. But even while facing his favorite team growing up and likely scrounging up tickets for friends and family who might be donning Blue Note gear, the Vezina Trophy finalist is looking at this opportunity strictly as a “business trip.”

Bishop’s strong regular season play continued into Round 1 as he boasted a .937 even strength save percentage and allowed only 12 goals over the six-game series win against the Nashville Predators. His .900 high-danger save percentage (via Natural Stat Trick) is only topped by Robin Lehner (.962) and Phillip Grubauer (.941) among goalies still active in the playoffs.

If the Stars end up reaching the conference final for the first time since 2008, Bishop will have played a huge role in that achievement.

“He is, if not the highest reason, the top two reasons of why we’re in this position right now,” said Stars forward Tyler Seguin. “He’s been our backbone all year. He’s our best player, and we have a lot of confidence in him.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

TODAY’S SCHEDULE
Game 1: Columbus Blue Jackets at Boston Bruins, 7 p.m. ET.
Can the Blue Jackets do it again? Maybe not another sweep, but can they knock off another “favored” opponent to advance to their first ever conference final? Columbus enters this series coming off a ton of rest, while the Bruins went the distance against the Toronto Maple Leafs and now have to shift gears and get going again. It’ll be a series of mixed emotions for Sean Kuraly, who grew up a Blue Jackets fan in Columbus. But his family is all on board with the black and gold, at least for this series. (NBCSN; Live stream)

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.